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         A cut from
(and conversation around)
        a book called 


Emilio FRAIA

Emilio FRAIA’s SEVASTOPOL (a novel translated from the Portuguese by Zoë PERRY) contains three distinct narratives, each burrowing into a crucial turning point in a person’s life: a young woman gives a melancholy account of her obsession with climbing Mount Everest; a Peruvian-Brazilian vanishes into the forest after staying in a musty, semi-abandoned inn somewhere in the haunted depths of the Brazilian countryside; a young playwright embarks on the production of a play about the city of Sevastopol and a Russian painter portraying Crimean War soldiers. Inspired by TOLSTOY’s THE SEVASTOPOL SKETCHES, FRAIA masterfully weaves together these stories of yearning and loss, obsession and madness, failure and the desire to persist.

    ‘Valley of the Shadow of Death,’
      Roger FENTON
      a photograph taken on April 23, 1855,
      Sevastopol, during the Crimean War.

See below for an excerpt for the novel
followed by a conversation
between FRAIA and PERRY ...

Siege of Sebastopol 1854-55
from Errol MORRIS’ ‘Believing is Seeing’

“We started our descent. We were already at camp one when one of the ropes fixed across a crevasse came loose. An ice pack shifted. I lost my balance and fell. My legs got stuck. It all happened so fast. I felt hot, like something warm had been placed on my knees, something that didn’t allow me to think of anything else. While I waited for the search and rescue team, I was sure I was going to die.

Dozens of people die on Everest every season. Search and rescue is difficult. There are many sections helicopters don’t have access to.

In the ambulance, I had hallucinations.

In one of them, I found myself in the middle of a lawn around an isolated house, flanked by a stream and a row of eucalyptus trees, and I felt a sudden pain. I called Téo and he said he thought we’d better go back. He seemed upset. He’d planned to go mountain biking that day and now this. We put our backpacks in the car and left. On the road, he told me to breathe, relax, he said that deep down it was all my fault: you need to eat better, Lena, eat less meat, do yoga, change your routine, make your body an instrument for expanding and knowing the soul, etc.

He turned on the stereo and scrolled through his phone searching for some song. He stayed like that, looking at the screen, looking at the road, the road getting swallowed up under the headlights, his head moving in a sleepy, blue, sort of phosphorescent way, detached from the darkness like the bust of a statue. At one point, he turned to me and I thought he wanted to tell me something. But he said nothing. He looked back down and kept fiddling with his phone, looking at the screen, then at the road.

Outside, the brush that covered almost the entire shoulder bowed in the breeze, the sky was a puddle of oil, dozing peacefully behind a single cloud, and we were submerged in a feeling of darkness when suddenly something lit up. I didn’t have time to turn, Téo looked up, and I think we both saw it at the same time, a blur lumbering across the asphalt in front of us: I screamed and he braked, the wheels locked and the car came dragging to a stop, about two metres from it, now staring at us. The mane. A screech and hooves; the animal ambled off, sluggish—and vanished.”

The above excerpt is from the first of three stories in SEVASTOPOL, a scene I wrote many years ago, before I’d even thought about the book. You could say it was from this image, and around it, that the story fell into place.

Lena, a young mountaineer who dreams of climbing the Seven Summits, suffers an accident on the mountain. It’s in the first-person, she’s telling what happened and when she gets to the moment of the accident, there’s a cut: the story jumps from the accident to a kind of dream, a memory, in which she and her ex-boyfriend are away on a weekend trip. They’re in the countryside, a nice place, like so many in the interior of the state of São Paulo, and plan to spend the day mountain biking. But suddenly Lena is in pain. We don’t know why. So they have to abandon their plans for the weekend and go back to the city. The reaction of Téo, her boyfriend, isn’t the best. In the car driving back, he criticizes Lena’s habits and behaviour. He seems impatient, annoyed, upset. What I wanted to do was show a certain disconnect between them, her loneliness, a growing tension, which culminates with the animal that suddenly appears in the middle of the road, right in front of the car.

I was glad when you agreed to translate SEVASTOPOL, Zoë. I wanted to know how the book’s narrators would sound through your words. The first and third stories are narrated by women. In both cases (Gino and Lena in the first story; Klaus and Nadia in the third), these narrators are closely engaged with male characters, and particularly with the way the men see them.  I wanted to make this tension between the narrators and these men the subject of the stories as well.

The first story in the book, the one in the above excerpt—I don’t know if you agree with me—but it’s about that too: the way a man (Gino) sees the narrator (Lena). She seems locked into that gaze, to the point that we no longer know who’s in control. When she comes across a film, at an art gallery, a film that seems to be telling her story, that story both is and isn’t her own. And that’s what gives shape to the story, internally. Is this man the one telling her story? There’s a tension between the voices. In the end, which is more true: the story she tells (in her motivational speaking engagements and self-help books), or the story told by someone else, by this man she assumes is the video’s creator; the heart-warming story of resilience she created for herself, or the story told from Gino’s point of view? How can we take back control of our stories? But what does it mean to be in control? Will that make the story any more true? Canadian photographer Jeff Wall has a photo I like a lot, ‘Picture for Women.’ In one scene, divided into three parts, there’s a woman (looking straight ahead), a camera in the middle, and the photographer on the right. It’s an ambiguous commentary on female representation through the male gaze.

Jeff WALL, ‘Picture for Women’ (1979)

So, having you as the translator of the book tightened that screw one final turn, and I’m really pleased about that. I tried to avoid ‘female’ discourse markers or mimicking the tropes expected from “women’s” or “intimist” literature. In your work as a translator, do you feel like there are different ways to approach male or female narrators? Specifically in this story in the book, how did you try to connect with the narrator’s tone of voice?

The scene with Téo and Lena in the car is one of my favourites—I’m glad you picked it. What I really enjoy about all the stories in SEVASTOPOL is how layered and murky they are. All these narrators are a bit unreliable in their own way. As a reader, you often question who’s telling the story, whose story it is, whether the story you started reading is still the same by the end, or even where a story begins and ends. I love the little details that pop up across all three like Easter eggs. The bowing brush and rows of eucalyptus trees mentioned in the section you selected above, for example, send me right back to the looming stands of eucalyptus surrounding Nilo’s property in ‘May’.

As far the actual work goes, I don’t necessarily take a different approach depending on the gender of the narrator. Voice is intersectional. But a good translation rests on nailing voice, and out of the three stories, I have to admit that Lena’s is the one I found most challenging. I’ve tried to pin down what it was about Lena that I wrestled with, and I think in large part it’s because I had very little in common with her, and I often struggled to warm to her. As odd as it sounds, I felt much more of an affinity for Klaus, the drunk, over-the-hill playwright who rides the bus around São Paulo all day cruising, than for the ultra-competitive climber who created a career as a motivational speaker... and is also a woman.

When I first read ‘August’ and was introduced to Klaus, I instantly felt like I’d met ‘that guy’ before. If a voice feels familiar to me, then ultimately it should be easier to coax out. Translators are world class eavesdroppers. I’ve spent years riding buses around London and other cities, listening in on conversations. We devour playlists, podcasts, films, attempting to build up that voice’s universe around us. Something I’ve really missed during the pandemic is sitting in a crowded café and just consuming human interactions.

You said you wrote this excerpt several years ago, before you’d ever thought about the book. This project came about quite differently from other books I’ve translated, and I worked on each story at its own particular time, in different places, starting back in 2018. It was actually a remarkable way to approach a book like this and I really appreciated being able to sit with these wonderful stories and hang out with these characters for so long, and across so many places and spaces. I’m curious about how SEVASTOPOL came to be and what your process was like in writing the book. Were the stories written at different times, in different places? Did you always set out to create a triptych?

Lena is a difficult character, I agree with you, she’s not easily likable, and it’s wonderful to know you found that same resistance during the translation. She was the most complicated character for me to create as well. Although I enjoy trekking, hiking and nature, I don’t climb, I’ve never been to Everest, I have practically nothing in common with her or that world. But the biggest challenge here, in my opinion, has to do with something else, which is what also attracted me, and what in a way led me to write the story: even though she has the confidence of an unreliable narrator, what does Lena actually believe at the moment the story is being told? That was the question for me. This creates a challenge of technique, it’s not that easy to see who she really is, to get a feel for her or, ultimately, to even like her.

We know she used to be an ambitious climber, we know she had an accident and that she became a kind of motivational speaker. We know she started to tell her story about overcoming adversity to corporate audiences, in online videos, TED Talks. And little by little, she uncovers strategies for how to move, how to rally a crowd—and she turns her story, her private life, into a format, into a type of ‘narrative’ and, of course, into money. (There’s a moment when she realizes that success is directly linked to people identifying with what she has to tell/show: ‘People identified with me, and I soon understood that this identification was a key, a key that could open all doors’. The secret, she says, is to inspire, to be ‘authentic’ and in that way please people, get compliments, followers, etc. We’re all familiar with this. Social media does it. Bad politics, too. And this is exactly the opposite of good fiction or art—and the kind of truths they give rise to.)

But she’s at a kind of narrative dead end. Suddenly the stories she’s told others and herself are no longer working. So at the moment the story is being told, we don’t know what’s going to happen to her, we don’t know who she is. She seems to no longer be the person she once was, but she’s not yet somebody else.

This is mirrored in Nadia’s pursuit, in the third story of the book—someone who makes an infinitely gentler and more sympathetic narrator than Lena—as she’s writing and rewriting the same story. It’s almost as if Nadia were alongside Lena in this quest, drafting ways out, possibilities. These relationships between the stories interested me from the very beginning. And even though I don’t really feel entitled to call SEVASTOPOL a novel, a lot of times that’s how I’d like people to read it or to at least think about it that way. That these stories, positioned next to each other, might lead to some sort of effect.

I wrote the stories in order, inspired by the three moments of the Crimean War as told by Tolstoy in the SEVASTOPOL SKETCHES. While I was writing, the political situation in Brazil was just starting to take a really dark and bewildering turn, which would only get worse. So I thought about doing something that wasn’t a mirror, but a commentary on that atmosphere. But stories that weren’t political on their surface, something really personal and intimate. At the very beginning of the book Lena says that events are like bandages that we have to wrap and unwrap, as carefully as possible. I think this is what the narrators are doing throughout the book, until a kind of final summation from Nadia: ‘I thought about the big picture, about my generation, crushed by another ten, fifteen years of paralysis.’

Actually, something that made me really happy in the translation was seeing how you managed to make those sometimes very subtle elements and atmospheres travel through the stories. Do you belong to the team of translators who usually read the entire book before translating, or do you like to discover the story as you translate? Do you usually read a lot of translated literature? Is it true that in countries like the United States and England today there is a boom in contemporary translated literature?

Those relationships between the stories, I think, are what make SEVASTOPOL such an appealing read. Each story absolutely stands on its own, but when you put the three together something kind of magical happens and everything gets magnified. Is it a novel? Maybe not, but it’s also not a typical collection of short stories. I love the short story as a form, but there are times you just want the depth of a novel. What you’ve done is create stories that satisfy that desire for depth and breadth.

But it’s interesting that we’re talking about the book as a whole and in its parts, because this ties in with my approach to the translation, specifically the circumstances surrounding this project, which were a little different. In the beginning I was sent ‘May’ to translate as a sample, before the book was published in Brazil. Five or six months later we were still pitching, and I translated ‘August’; and then finally I worked on ‘December’ after the book had been acquired. Looking back now, I realise I basically did one story a year, with everything kind of marinating nicely in between. So, I wasn’t actually presented with the stories as one whole work at first. And I suppose it’s also worth noting that I did them out of order, inadvertently saving the first one for last. But if a publisher had approached me saying ‘We’d like you translate this book we’ve acquired, here it is,’ then I’d like to think I would have read the entire book before starting, and also started from page one.

I see this ‘debate’ flare up among translators on Twitter a few times a year and people try to justify their reasons for either reading or not reading a book first. For some I think it’s genuinely just about saving time. Others say they want to be surprised and discover the book as a reader—okay, but by the time you finish a translation, you’ll have read the whole thing several times over and, frankly, drained every last drop of mystery by asking your author to explain things that were probably never meant to be explained to a reader. The idea of not reading a book before starting honestly freaks me out a bit (what if the last half of the book is terrible?) but is that because it’s not a sound strategy? Or is it just because I’m a Virgo who likes to have control? Is it easy for me to say that? SEVASTOPOL is just under 120 pages—no one’s ever asked me to translate a doorstopper.

So, I can say it’s my rule to read a book before translating, but that’s not actually what I did with SEVASTOPOL, and I’d like to think that worked out fine. I think we all need to do whatever works best for each of us, and that can change from project to project. I’m not sure I’ve ever worked the same way twice on a book translation. I used to think I was just trying to hammer out my own method, but now that I’ve been doing literary translation for almost ten years, I’m not sure there is one best way (though there are certainly things I’ll never do again).

Very little literature in translation gets published in the UK or the US compared to other countries, so ‘boom’ may be relative. But I do see translated literature becoming a lot more visible, and translators becoming more visible with it. I read a lot of translated literature; I think most translators do. One of the flipsides of being a reader in a country where relatively little literature in translation gets published is that what does get published has had to clear so many hurdles just to make it to the shelves. It’s often a lot better than the homegrown variety, though that still feels like a secret. I also just like reading my friends’ work. And not that the argument that reading translated literature opens you up to worlds and points of view that are unfamiliar to you isn’t valid, but I think, much like travel, part of the beauty of reading translations it they often show us just how similar humans are.

You’ll often hear editors claim that short stories are harder to sell in English-speaking countries. I’d love to see that change. I think Brazil has some spectacular short story writers and generally I feel like I see more of them on the shelves there. Do you think Brazilian publishers are less afraid to publish stories? Or that Brazilian readers are more open to them? Do you find the process of writing stories different to writing a novel, and do you have a preference?

The same thing happens in Brazil, it’s the same story from publishers everywhere: short stories don't sell, we want novels. Maybe it’s just the general lack of time nowadays or that people have difficulty concentrating, but short books, with 100, 150 pages, have really taken off. But not collections of short stories. Some of Brazil’s greatest authors have written perfect short stories: Sérgio SANT’ANNA, Rubem FONSECA, Clarice LISPECTOR, Guimarães ROSA, Lygia FAGUNDES TELLES, Machado de ASSIS. In Latin America, BORGES, ONETTI, and CORTÁZAR turned everything on its ear with short stories. Julio Ramón RYBEIRO, Silvina OCAMPO, Adolfo Bioy CASARES, Felisberto HERNÁNDEZ. It’s almost impossible to talk about 20th century literature down here without seeing the short story as something central. Rodrigo FRESÁN has an excellent theory that THE DREAM OF HEROES, by Bioy CASARES, is the greatest novel in Argentine literature, the most perfect novel. FRESÁN says that ADAM BUENOSAYRES, ON HEROES & TOMBS, HOPSCOTCH, FACUNDO, ARTIFICIAL RESPIRATION are all rambling, episodic novels, prisoners of the ghost of the short story, the reigning genre of Argentine literature. And what makes THE DREAM OF HEROES so special is it pays homage to that strangeness, because it’s a novel that’s trying the whole time to recall a story: what happened in a single night. It’s both a short story and a novel, at the same time.

Those are of particular interest to me, these books that seem to disrupt genre. These sort of fluid formats. Books where we follow along with the dramas of the characters, the development of the plot, but at the same time there’s this feeling of... something different in the air, something pointing outward, to a strange place, that we aren’t quite sure what it is. I really like the films by Korean filmmaker Hong SANG-SOO. I think he succeeds, in his own way, in building something along those lines. I like the books by Mexican author Mario BELLATIN. OPTIC NERVE, by Argentine writer María GAINZA, is a book I recently read with great pleasure. AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF RED, by Anne CARSON. These are formats that make us reassess our expectations of what it means to read a book or watch a film, to rethink what kind of experiences we’re seeking.

LeftA first edition copy of CASARES’
                                  DREAM OF HEROES

RightTheatrical poster for Hong SANG-SOO’s 

It’s funny now to think about the way you translated SEVASTOPOL, starting with the second part, going through the third and finally arriving at the first. It really is quite unusual, and it seems to also match the way I wrote the book. I said earlier that I wrote the stories in order, but now, on second thought, I don’t think that’s exactly true. I did try to structure them so that they made sense in the order in which they appear in the book. So that they commune with Tolstoy’s stories in Sevastopol. But it was undoubtedly a much more disorderly and fragmentary experience, and I think that’s reflected in the stories within stories in the book. In the end, the truth is we don’t have much of a choice, do we? We can only write what we can write. Efforts don’t matter much. Hungarian writer Péter ESTERHÁZY says a writer’s style has more to do with what he doesn’t know than with what he does know. I totally agree with that.

© Eurosport

And there are the words. It all comes down to them. One thing I often think about when I’m writing is this: beyond the plot and themes, the characters and the tone, there are always the words. Using one word means not using another. And this seems to me to be an issue in the translation process as well. To finish our conversation, Zoë—and I’d just like to thank you for this exchange, for your friendship, and for having recreated the words of the book so well and obsessively—I’d like to know something perhaps a bit abstract about you, but that intrigues me: by choosing a word in your language, you’re putting it out into circulation, bringing all that that word implies to the book. How do you make that relationship, those choices? Do you usually consult colleagues, what kind of dictionaries? When do you know you’re finished, how do you get to a result, to a system of equivalencies you’re satisfied with?

I love these attempts to blur the lines between genres. I’m always drawn to texts that break the rules in interesting ways. Anne CARSON and Mario BELLATIN are also favourites of mine. Another Brazilian author I translate is Veronica STIGGER, and I think she also plays with genre in innovative and almost subversive ways.

I really like that line from ESTERHÁZY, and while I agree with the idea as far as a writer’s style, when it comes to translation, I think it’s all about what you know. Something I believe Margaret JULL COSTA once told me was how important it is for translators to know what you don’t know. Second guess everything. Is what you think is happening on the page really happening? Sometimes it turns out to be a typo. Sometimes it’s a false friend, and if your brain is on autopilot, or you’re working too quickly, you’ll read right past it. I think translators of Romance languages have to be particularly careful about cross-contamination. I remember reading a translation of a Brazilian story several years ago and the characters stopped on the side of the road to buy fresh sugar cane juice, which they had with cake. My jaw instantly clenched imagining this sugar bomb and then I realized pretty quickly what had happened. Caldo de cana and pastel, that classic Brazilian sweet and savoury combination, becomes something very different if you’re used to seeing the word pastel in Spanish, or even in European Portuguese.

And yes, words! It really does all come down to them. It’s a lot of weight! My first drafts can be close to unreadable. There are a few reasons for that, but mostly it’s because I have terrible commitment issues on the first pass and almost every sentence gets filled/clogged/crammed/packed with variations/alternatives/options. There’s a lot of ‘phone a friend,’ whether it’s to Brazilian friends or family, or other translators who work from Portuguese (or who specifically don’t). My mother-in-law was always a good resource because she was one of the few Brazilians I know who’s both fascinated by language and its usage but barely speaks a word of English. Usually my questions aren’t ‘what does this mean?’, but ‘what does this mean to you?’ or ‘would you say this to your grandmother?’ ‘how would someone make you feel if they said this to you?’ And of course, it’s not just about the words in the original text, but the words in English, too. I  read widely in English, I have a half dozen little notebooks and memos on my phone where I jot down turns of phrase or sayings that I hear.

Occasionally I’ll be asked, by a writer or an editor, why I went with one word instead of another, and I’m not always able to give a good answer. I remember with my first book translation, ALL DOGS ARE BLUE by Rodrigo de SOUZA LEÃO, there was a word in the first line that my co-translator and I spent literal hours discussing before committing to our specific choice and the editor quite casually changed it and we had to make our case. And I try not to look too closely at translations once they’re published. I’m not sure a translation is ever truly finished, it’s just the moment in time when you pulled the plug, and all its myriad choices get set on paper.

I think we could keep this lovely back and forth going (and I hope that we will, unofficially!) Thank you for being such a warm, available, and generous author to work with, and for writing such a brilliant book, which makes any translator’s job easier. Now, in the words of Klaus, ‘Onward, champion!’

Emilio FRAIA was born in Sao Paulo in 1982. His new book SEVASTOPOL, translated by Zoe PERRY, was recently published by New Directions in the US and Lolli Editions in the UK. FRAIA was named one of Granta’s Best Young Brazilian Writers. He was awarded a Civitella Ranieri Writing Fellowship and named a fellow of the Shanghai Writing Program. In English, his fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, One Grand Journal and the Two Lines anthology PASSAGEWAYS.

Zoë PERRY’s translations of contemporary Brazilian literature have appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, Words Without Borders and The White Review. She is a founding member of The Starling Bureau, a literary translators’ collective and was selected for a Banff International Translation Centre residency for her translation of Emilio Fraia’s SEVASTOPOL.


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